Making social science accessible

21 Apr 2020

Politics and Society

values divide

Whisper it softly but one day, eventually, politics will come back. And while it might not be the thing we’re all missing most, when it does a lot will hinge on what form it takes.

As James Forsyth noted in his column this week, talk in government is that politics will be changed ‘for a generation’ by the Conservative party’s move to become a more ‘communitarian party’.

Yet prior to the shock of the pandemic all the talk was of a new divide in British politics. Social values – not the traditional left-right cleavage – was the dominant dividing line that won Boris Johnson his majority.

Now the talk is of a country, post Brexit and post Covid-19, more united. But there are good reasons to believe that the divide that we have grown so used to, hinging on social identity rather than economic circumstances, will persist.

While many things may change, our politics is likely to feel familiar.

The first thing worth noting is that the Conservatives profited from the pre-Covid battle lines. In December 2019, they won seats in the North and Midlands such as Ashfield, Bishop Auckland and Workington that had never before elected a Conservative MP.

In seats where over 60 per cent backed Leave, the Tories increased their support by an average of six per cent. In those where more than 60 per cent voted remain, its vote fell by three points.

According to Lord Ashcroft’s poll carried out on the day of the election, 25 per cent of Labour Leave voters switched to the Conservatives. And the party won by 21 per cent among working class voters.

Yet that is not the whole story. The Tories scored a double whammy in 2019 – not only winning leave-leaning Labour seats, but also hanging onto their own strongly pro-remain, proportionately more middle class constituencies.

Conservatives retained two thirds (65 per cent) of their remain backing voters. What accounts for their ability to pull off this spectacular electoral trick?

Tory remainers were willing to prioritise left-right loyalties over Brexit ones to prevent Jeremy Corbyn from coming to power, even at the cost of a hard Brexit.

The early evidence is that the election of Keir Starmer would make a repeat performance more difficult, widening the pool of voters in marginal constituencies willing to countenance voting Labour.

The transition towards a post-Covid economic reality, while affecting the lowest paid worst, is also likely to generate a relatively high proportion of losers among middle class voters.

These are disproportionately more likely to be people who stuck with the Conservatives last time despite Brexit, worried principally about Corbyn’s redistributive agenda. This could prove toxic for the Conservative party in the medium term.

Yet while the cost of governing will likely increase, the fault lines between the two parties on economic issues will be less clear cut than in the recent past.

Moreover, it will be more difficult for the Government to deliver to its newer voters on its election promise to ‘level up’ the country while still paying the pandemic bill.

The obvious strategy to counteract this? Balancing some of these near-inevitable losses by keeping the values division central.

The Conservatives are now a party with a huge government majority and an electoral interest in making sure these divisions, not created by Brexit but triggered and strengthened by it, remain.

This majority will give them the opportunity to introduce legislation to do just that.

Whether it be immigration and the fact that, despite some warm Covid-related words, the key policy of a points-based system is being rolled out. Or climate change legislation, and the potential to row back on pledges that may have any impact on the return to economic growth. Or the plethora of diversity or gender issues.

There are any number of key issues that would mobilise the values divide that the Government might be expected to exploit in an effort to hold its coalition together, while placing enormous pressure on their Labour opponents.

And, as one Tory MP put it, there will be plenty of opportunities after Covid-19 given the new Labour leader is a ‘human-rightsy, open-bordersy kind of guy’.

Even if Boris Johnson’s intention was to move to a fluffy ‘One Nationism’ and the politics of social consensus, it is far from clear that he could if he tried.

The long-term, structural nature of the shift towards social identity as an electoral divide has been driven by more than tactical political decisions.

The proportion of those on the left who are also social liberal has risen since 1992 (from 15 per cent to 28 per cent in 2017). In turn, social authoritarianism has also risen, and has survived previous economic crises.

Evidence from the British Election Study shows that 82 per cent of Conservative voters in 2019 supported Leave in 2016.

The party’s new electoral coalition, its members and its new MPs have all bought in to the new, post-Cameron Conservative party. Marching them down that hill would be a monumental task.

Crises of the sort that the pandemic has induced rightly come to dominate everything in the short to medium term, disrupting the normal flow of politics.

Old economic certainties are revisited. Yet politics always intrudes, and where and how it does is likely to depend upon the interests and partisan concerns of those with power.

All this points in one direction: the Brexit war may be almost behind us, but the values war might have only just begun.

By Anand Menon, Director of The UK in a Changing Europe and Alan Wager, politics researcher at The UK in a Changing Europe. This piece was originally published in the Spectator


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